8 Strategies for Managing Team Overload
Helping Your People to Cope With a Demanding Workload
Over the last few weeks, Myfanwy has been staying later than her manager and "going the extra mile" to get things done.
She's conscientious, so she doesn't usually mind, but she's started to feel out of sorts. At first, she thought nothing of it, until her team mates confided that they, too, are feeling the strain. There just seems to be more and more work to do. Myfanwy senses that her performance has dropped and she sees her colleagues starting to take time off sick.
In this article, we'll look at how to prevent your team members from buckling under the weight of a heavy workload, while ensuring that they still deliver the goals that are important to the organization. We'll explore how to ease the pressure on your people without upsetting your boss, and how to stop the problem from happening again.
Click here to view a transcript of this video.
What Is "Team Overload?"
Your team has a physical limit to what it can achieve and, when the demands made of it exceed its ability to meet them, team overload happens. It can appear over time or suddenly, with little warning.
Why Is It Important to Manage Team Overload?
You have two responsibilities as your team’s manager. You want to look after your people, but you must also ensure that they deliver results. You need to give them both the space and the right amount of pressure to produce their best work.
It’s crucial to get the balance right, because an overloaded team won’t benefit your organization. It will work hard, but it will struggle to achieve its goals. Ultimately, team overload can affect the company’s bottom line.
Research conducted by Stanford University has found that the pressure of being overloaded with work also makes team members less effective, and causes them to lose critical tasks in the sea of less important ones. This can affect their morale, and make them demoralized, disengaged and resentful. Their health often suffers, too, particularly because of stress and burnout.
8 Ways to Manage Team Overload
Managers usually add to, rather than reduce, their teams' workloads, but every team has a limit to what it can accomplish. Fortunately, you can use a number of strategies to help.
1. Get stakeholder support.
Having the support of senior managers and other stakeholders, and managing their expectations, makes it easier to resist when they want to push more work through. Managers often fear saying "no" to their bosses, and so their teams end up taking on extra work.
However, you can reduce overload for your team by having honest discussions and negotiation with your manager. Be prepared to explain the situation – not to simply complain – and to accept that sometimes there is a legitimate need to "up the pace." (This is when it's important to avoid developing a reputation for negativity and blocking.)
2. Communicate, and demonstrate concern.
Your team is more likely to buckle if it feels that you're unaware of, or don't care about, the problems it faces. This won't always be your fault: many people don't feel comfortable about pushing back or admitting that they're struggling. So be proactive about checking in with your team members, particularly when assigning tasks. If your people feel that they can talk openly with you, you'll be more in tune with what's going on and better able to respond quickly.
Seek their input, too. They'll have their own suggestions for managing their workloads. And, when your people have put in time and effort to meet a need, show appreciation and allow them time to recuperate. Remember that pushing on without respite is likely to be counterproductive.
3. Help your team to prioritize and plan.
A 2015 survey of more than 600 people by Workfront, a project management organization, found that hard-pressed employees struggle to carve out time for their primary job duties. Those surveyed estimate that they are only able to give 46 percent of their time to performing the essential tasks of their roles, and they say that 16 percent of their time is given to "wasteful" meetings and interruptions for non-essential tasks.
Helping your people to prioritize their tasks will free up their time for mission-critical ones, and can make the difference between them sinking and swimming. As their manager, you're also in the best position to identify which tasks are the most important for achieving your team's goals.
The first step is to clarify your team's goals, and to ask people to identify any of their activities that don't contribute to them. Review these, and discard them where possible.
Ask your team members to prepare comprehensive To-Do Lists of the remaining tasks, and help them to rank these. Base your decisions on what's important to the organization, the role your team fulfils, and what each person excels at. Estimate the time needed for each one, and plan ahead by day, week and month.
Crucially, your role doesn't stop there. Business moves quickly, so review your team's priorities regularly – possibly even each day – and change them as necessary.
4. Reduce time wasting.
When time is tight, you need to know that your people are putting it to the best possible use. Here are a few pointers:
- Reduce distractions. Email and social media notifications are well-known distractors, so set time limits and establish best practices for your team to follow.
- Keep meetings to a minimum. Meetings can be huge time wasters, so allow team members to miss any that aren't essential. For important meetings, focus the agenda on your team's core responsibilities and use apps like do.com to manage them more efficiently.
- Review your people's commitments. Give them permission to put less important tasks to one side until their workload is back to normal.
5. Enable "deep work."
Focus and flow are crucial for dealing with large volumes of work without sacrificing quality or taking too much time. However, overloaded team members often multitask and are easily distracted. In their book Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, authors Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister explain that resuming a task post-interruption can take as long as 25 minutes and reentering a state of flow can take up to an additional 15 minutes. Over the course of a day, this can add up to a significant number of lost work hours.
So, try scheduling periods of quiet, uninterrupted work for your team. Book a meeting room, close email inboxes, and turn phones off. Give your team the environment it needs for periods of what author Cal Newport calls "deep work." This is a state of distraction-free concentration in which people can produce quality, unrushed work.
6. Check for underperformance.
If your team claims to be overloaded but its workload seems acceptable, something is wrong. Take this as a signal to investigate further.
Be open minded about what the problem could be. Does your team lack the skills to fulfill certain duties? Do "dotted-line responsibilities" blur people's understanding of who they're working for? Is their equipment slow or outdated?
There could, of course, be other issues at play. Workload demands may be reasonable, and the problem might really lie with a team's collective attitude or with a single team member whose poor performance is affecting everyone else.
Whetton and Cameron's tool for handling poor performance may be useful here. It comprises a five-step process: resupply, retrain, refit, reassign, release. Find out more about this in our article, Dealing with Poor Performance.
7. Increase capacity.
Your team might be overloaded because some of its members have left, leaving fewer people to shoulder the workload. Think about whether there might be deep-rooted procedural or personal issues that have caused this and address these promptly to avoid further losses.
Try to act quickly when recruiting new team members. Don't delay in advertising vacancies or interviewing applicants, and review your new starter's job description so that he or she won't immediately feel overloaded.
8. Search for alternatives.
Helping people to work faster and harder can go only so far. Firefighting is reasonable for a while, but it should never become the norm. So, if your team is overloaded, investigate what other options may be open to you.
Consider rescheduling work – are your people working to false deadlines? If the work is of questionable value, think about postponing it or scrapping it completely. If it is essential, can you divide or simplify it? Look at redistributing tasks within – or beyond – the team, to people who are able to handle them.
Many of us manage teams that struggle with their workload. It's important to have a plan in place so that, if your team becomes overloaded, you can balance managing people with producing results.
To manage an overloaded team:
- Secure your boss's support and negotiate which tasks you can say "no" to.
- Ask for your team members' input on how to deal with their heavy workload.
- Show concern for your people and recognize their efforts.
- Help them to prioritize their tasks, manage their time, and focus on producing high quality work.
- Look for underlying issues and tackle them promptly.
- Consider whether you need to take on more people.
- Lastly, investigate other alternatives to firefighting.
Using these strategies, you will help your team to stay afloat, while achieving its and the organization's objectives.